Decades with Dave

"Late Show" celebrates twentieth anniversary on air

On Feb. 1, 1982, David Letterman -- native Hoosier, noted Ball State alumnus and celebrated stand-up comic -- was introduced to viewers across the nation as the satirical host of NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman." Today, two decades and more than 3,000 broadcasts later, this legend of comedy and forerunner of sarcastic wit continues to keep his audience tuned in to his antics on his current "Late Show with David Letterman" by doing what he does best -- making America laugh.

By Gail Koch

Special Projects Reporter

David Letterman has spent the past 20 years of his career prying into the personal affairs of the guests who appear on his show. But there is one life Letterman has kept away from the eye of late-night scrutiny -- his own.


Those who knew Letterman as an undergraduate at Ball State recall a private man whose comedy style was just beginning to develop.

As the fraternity brother whom many say knew Letterman best, Ball State alumnus Jeff Lewis said he believes Letterman's insecurity stemmed from a deep-seeded lack of self-confidence.

"Dave always thought one of his keys to success was his ability to keep people from really knowing him," Lewis said. "He has said in the past that the more people know about him, the less they're going to like him. The irony of that statement is that he has appeared on network television for the last 20 years having never really bought into his own success."

Former Sigma Chi fraternity brother Tom Leys remembers Letterman's difficulties with his self-esteem.

"Dave was very insecure with who he was at the time," Leys said. "Then again, we all were. It was during Vietnam, and we were all a little more scared than we cared to admit. It was Dave's ability to take control of a situation with his cutting humor that made him more comfortable during times like that."

In his biography, "The Letterman Wit," by Bill Adler, Letterman attests to his inability to share much about himself in front of a television audience.

"I like talking about things that happen in my life if I think I can make me the butt of the joke," Letterman said. "But I'm not crazy about actually talking about real things in m life: the women in my life, or my own political feelings and beliefs, limited as they are."

As odd as it may seem that one of America's most influential television personalities has endured a constant struggle with his self-esteem, there was once a time in Letterman's early career when his reclusive nature was more the outcome of being unheard than it was a result of playing it cool.


Fans of Letterman's late show have developed a love for the comedian's sarcastic, cynical humor. But prior to his enrollment as a Ball State student, the young comedian encountered difficulty finding an audience that would appreciate the derisive jokes and mocking humor he has made so popular today.

"Watching Dave from the time he came into the chapter until the time he left, I really saw him come of age," Lewis said. "He flourished in the fraternity because the house was a place where he was wanted and everyone loved him."

Despite Indiana University being his first college of choice, Letterman took his academic shortcomings into consideration and made the decision to attend Ball State instead.

In September of 1965 Letterman enrolled as a freshman and before long was seeking a niche in which to be included. Lewis remembers meeting Letterman in the fall of that same year.

"Dave approached me and asked how he would go about joining a fraternity," Lewis said. "We all thought he would rush Sigma Chi, but he ended up pledging Sigma Phi Epislon instead."

According to Lewis, Letterman soon felt he was not cut out to be a Sig Ep, and in the fall of his sophomore year pursued a membership in the Sigma Chi chapter once more.

"Dave had asked me why we would allow him to rush again, and as president I had learned that in order to keep your fraternity close knit you wanted guys who were well liked," Lewis said. "Dave was definitely one of those guys."


Soon enough, Letterman was amusing his fraternity brothers with his off-key wit and practical jokes. Lewis recalls the time when Letterman, who served as the organization's pledge trainer in the fall of '67, pulled off one of the most elaborate tricks he had ever seen.

"It was two o'clock in the afternoon and all the active members were watching the Indiana boys' state basketball finals in the formal room," Lewis said. "Dave somehow managed to get all of his pledges to take 52 mattresses out of the house in under five minutes. The chapter was absolutely beside itself when it found all of its beds missing."

Letterman again found himself as the instigator of a prank when, in the spring of '68, he and several of his brothers decided to swipe Theta Pi fraternity's 200-pound, cast-iron "Beta Bell." The five brothers managed to push the bell into Sigma Chi's yard before loading it into the trunk of one of their vehicles. It was Letterman who suggested they throw the bell into the White River (where it presumedly remains to this day.)

Although no one ever received any punishment for the prank, Lewis said there was no question as to who the culprit was.

"The Betas had to know it was Sigma Chi," he said. "I mean, who else would have done something like that? It was Dave at his finest."

Fraternity brother Tom Leys also recalls how Letterman's humor could get the best of almost anyone.

"We would go to Manor's or Huff's Bar at least three times a week," Leys said. "One time we went out and Dave didn't have his fake ID. He had to show them his real driver's license and the man told him, 'This says here you're 20.' Dave looked at it and said, 'Well yeah, that's because I was born premature.'"

Leys said it was enough to get Letterman into the bar with a drink in his hand.

Leys also remembers Letterman's involvement in a prank against greek rival Lambda Chi Alpha. As part of the fraternity's final rush activity, Leys said the Lambda Chis would host a party called Club Lambda. Limousines would pick up the rushees and their dates for dinner before bringing them back to the house for an outdoor dance.

"A bunch of us Sigmas were at Huff's when we ran into a couple of winos. We gave them all wine before telling them they could crash in the formal room of Lambda Chi," Leys said. "You can imagine the scene that followed when the rushees walked in to find three bums sleeping on their floor."

Along with honing his talent as a comedian for his fraternity brothers, Letterman also developed his skills on air while working as an employee of WBST, the campus radio station.


As student program director for the radio station at the time, Al Rent, Ball State's current director of marketing, hired Dave to work on-air in the afternoons playing classical music.

"Everyone was responsible for writing his own material, and when Dave grew tired of announcing for the classicals, he just started making things up about the composers," Rent said.

Letterman eventually crossed the line. One afternoon, while introducing Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune," he added 'You know the de Lune sisters. There was Clair, there was Mabel..."

Rent knew Letterman's act had gone to far and had to take him off the air.


Upon graduation from the university in 1970, Letterman began working full time at Channel 13 in Indianapolis. In 1975, the frustrated broadcaster left Indiana behind to try his hand at showbiz in Los Angeles.

What followed next -- his ventures as one of The Comedy Store's most well received guests, his numerous spots with Johnny Carson on the "Tonight Show" and his attempts to host an NBC morning show -- led him to the debut of his original late-night program in February 1982.

Twenty years have since passed and the nation continues to tune in every weeknight to Letterman's widely acclaimed program. Regardless of his former anxieties or continuing fears of failure, David Letterman has proved himself not only a pioneer in the world of late-night comedy, but a man with which Americans can relate.

"Dave rose from absolute obscurity to get where he is today," Lewis said. "He came from a middle-class family, attended a middle-class university and went on to become a television industry giant without any extra influence, pull or favor. He simply did it on his own, without any power plays, because he's just that good. It's an absolutely incredible achievement."


Since the launch of Letterman's network career, the man with the infamous buck-toothed grin has held out to celebrate an anniversary he probably never thought would arrive. In his biography, Letterman talked about Johnny Carson's decades-long success in late night.

"The reason the 'Tonight Show' succeeds is because people like him," he said. "They don't really turn the show on to see whoever Johnny has as guests. They turn on the show to see Johnny."

There is truth to Letterman's reasoning. And, you know what, Dave? We now turn our televisions on to see you.


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